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Police chief reflects on lengthy career, inspired as a child

Retired Chief Tom Felgate prepares to depart the police station in Ellisville.

After a law enforcement career that spanned some 45 years, Tom Felgate has pretty much seen it all.

Some of what he saw has shown that most people are good, helpful and responsible. Other things are incidents he finds difficult to forget, even though he’d like to.

Felgate retired early this month from his position as chief of the Ellisville Police Department, a position he had held since 2004. In an interview with West Newsmagazine after the Ellisville City Council’s honored him by renaming the police station in his honor, he looked back on his career. It was a task he was somewhat uncomfortable doing. “I like to stay in the background,” he stated simply. “After all, a chief is only as good as the command staff and officers he works with.”

Felgate attributes his interest in law enforcement to an incident in early childhood. An auto accident in which he and other family members were involved resulted in his being taken to the hospital by a police officer.

“I know he was just doing what he could to help us,” Felgate recalled, “but it sure made an impression on me.”

Years later, in 1972, Felgate returned home from U.S. Army service that included duty in Vietnam and was hired as a police dispatcher in Creve Coeur. Meanwhile, he also attended the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Academy and then joined the Creve Coeur department as an officer.

A subsequent move took him to the Manchester Police Department where, in 1978, he was named Officer of the Year. Two years later, Ellisville hired Felgate to launch a detective bureau in its police department. He rose through the ranks and was named chief in 2004.

High-profile cases

During his career, Felgate investigated numerous high-profile cases, two of which he described with the help of notes he has kept to this day.

As a member of the St. Louis area’s major case squad, he was involved in investigating the murder of an elderly Jefferson County woman during a burglary in which a large amount of cash was taken from a garment bag where the victim routinely hid the money. The garment bag also contained mothballs.

In following up leads in the case, investigators happened to question a car repair shop operator who reported that cash he received for work on a vehicle smelled like mothballs. Further follow-up led to two couples who had done work for the murdered woman and who were familiar with her home. A stash of the still-odorous currency also was found taped behind a mirror where they were living.

Both men and one of the women ultimately were convicted of the crime.

Felgate also remembers clearly a woman who was shot and killed early in 1980 during a robbery at an Ellisville fast food establishment where she was the night manager.

The case never was solved officially but the veteran policeman related how he became convinced the guilty person was the same man convicted of murdering four employees during the Pope Cafeteria robbery at the West County Mall later that same year.

Felgate said he felt sure the Ellisville case could be solved and he reopened it 10 years later. In the process, he discovered in the file a handwritten note sent to police soon after the robbery-murder from someone who reported seeing a suspicious-looking person in a car outside the fast food business before the incident occurred. For whatever reason, there hadn’t been any follow up on the note and Felgate had no way to do so because the note wasn’t signed.

With the help of Mary Shapiro, who now works for West Newsmagazine but then was with another West County newspaper, a portion of the note was reproduced and run in the publication. Although it was a long shot, Felgate hoped the person who wrote it or someone who knew who the writer was would respond.

Voila! The long shot paid off in ways Felgate hadn’t expected or hoped for. Still living in the area, the note writer, a woman, contacted Ellisville police. In a subsequent interview, she described the person and his car in vivid detail, which Felgate likened to someone having a near-photographic memory. Her description was based on recollections from when she happened to park her car next to the one driven by the person she had referred to in her note written 10 years earlier. In particular, the woman described the person’s eyes as being especially cold and penetrating.

The description reminded Felgate of the man arrested and convicted of the cafeteria robbery and murders. Shown a mugshot of the man, she quickly identified him as the person she had seen and clearly remembered.

Felgate’s theory was that the man was casing the fast food operation when the woman saw him. Although Felgate subsequently visited the suspect, who then was awaiting execution on death row for the cafeteria slayings, the man refused to acknowledge any involvement in the Ellisville robbery-murder.

Whether the man’s unwillingness to confess to another murder was influenced by the fact he still was appealing his earlier convictions is a matter of conjecture. Whatever the case, his appeals failed and he was executed by lethal injection in August 1991.

“We just needed another thread to tie everything together, but we couldn’t get that,” Felgate summarized. “But I’m convinced he was the man who killed that poor woman.”

Another minor bit of evidence: Felgate said he learned the man’s nickname in prison was Snake Eyes.

More dangerous now

The retired chief acknowledges the police officer’s job has changed considerably during his career.

“It’s way more dangerous now than when I started,” he said. “Back then, it seemed that most of the bad guys even were reluctant to shoot at police officers. Now, we are hearing all the time about police officers’ being killed and injured.”

Although Felgate sees less respect for police officers today, he also believes the concept of community policing is helping to foster a better overall relationship between the general public and law enforcement. The practice of encouraging interaction between citizens and police emphasizes the fact “we’re all human beings who depend on one another,” he said.

During his tenure as chief, Felgate has strongly encouraged those on his staff to pursue additional education. “About half of our officers have bachelor’s degrees, one has a master’s and we’ve had two who have joined the FBI,” he noted proudly.

Felgate himself has bachelor’s degrees in psychology and legal justice and a master’s degree in public administration. He has done additional graduate work at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Watched over and guided

As for his retirement plans, Felgate said with a smile, “My wife Karen and I already have begun entertaining our grandchildren more.” With two stepsons and a daughter and son of his own, he has 16 grandchildren.

Some travel with his wife of 35 years, including an upcoming family trip to Orlando, Florida, also is on the horizon, he said.

In addition, Felgate enjoys golf and playing his piano keyboard. “And I love to write,” he said, noting that he has penned some unpublished novels and enjoys the creative process of putting thoughts and experiences into words.

Felgate admitted that the council’s action to rename the police station took him completely by surprise.

“I’ve enjoyed great support from the mayor [Adam Paul] and the council, but I sure didn’t know that was coming,” he said. “I was told they wanted to recognize me at the council meeting, but I was kinda overcome by their renaming of the station. So I was out there blubbering like an idiot and wondering ‘what have I done to deserve this?'”

A self-described born-again Christian whose son now is a minister, Felgate observed, “I’ve been watched over and guided these many years in more ways than I can count.”

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